HC Deb 25 May 1988 vol 134 cc439-44

`(1) When a firearms holder voluntarily surrenders all rights to firearms previously possessed on firearms certificate which firearms are surrendered to any Chief Officer of Police there shall be—

  1. (a) a 28 day cooling off period when the lawful owner may be allowed to direct the possession of the firearms to a new owner, such as a registered firearms dealer, an auctioneer, or firearms certificate holder with appropriate authority to possess that firearm, or
  2. (b) the return of such firearms to the owner providing the owner has the authority to possess.

(2) All such amnesty and voluntarily surrender notices should include the advice that the holder of the firearms should obtain a current valuation of the value of the firearms and in suitable cases a temporary firearms certificate should be issued to the owner.'.—[Mr. William Ross.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. William Ross

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

We are familiar with the stories of the individual who finds an old painting in an antique shop or a little painting hanging on the wall of the study, or who buys an old painting at an auction and, to his intense surprise, discovers that he has come across a masterpiece worth many hundreds of thousands of pounds. That is extremely unlikely in the case of a firearm, but a close friend of mine who is keen on collecting firearms of all kinds once went to an auction where several old firearms were for sale. He did not succeed in purchasing any firearms, but he did buy some other stuff which he thought was junk including a locked tin box that rattled. He took the box home, prised it open and found in it a 31 calibre Colt of the earliest type. Conservative Members who know anything about firearms will realise that he had found the crowning piece of the day, which no one knew was in the box. My friend has kept that gun.

Chance finds like that can be made in every old house in the country. I understand that, whenever there is an amnesty, people turn their guns over to the police and the guns immediately become police property. People cannot get the guns back. All rights to a particular firearm are surrendered. However, there are occasions when the person finding a firearm is not able-bodied or sensible or someone who knows the value of the find. Often firearms turn up in a house after a death and the widows have to dispose of them. The weapon may fall into the hands of the deceased person's relatives, who may sometimes be quite distant relatives. They may be women who do not know the value of those weapons, do not like them and simply want to get rid of them. Sometimes they may fall into the hands of children or more distant descendants who have no interest in them. Those people may turn the weapons over to the police.

Sometimes those guns may be very valuable. In the nature of things, that is bound to be so. New clause 19 will give people a chance to check on the value of the firearm. It will provide a 28-day cooling-off period to allow the person to get the firearm back if he so chooses so that he can dispose of it in another way. As every one knows, in this day and age there is a cooling-off period for most types of hire-purchase agreements. I do not see why the same facility should not be extended to people who find themselves in the position that I have described.

New clause 19 would provide a protection for people who come across something of considerable value—possibly in the attic—or who may have had the firearm left to them and who then foolishly hand that weapon over to the police. New clause 19 is designed purely and simply for that purpose.

In our debate on the guillotine motion, the right hon. Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen) expressed some concern about the contest for the high moral ground and delighted that it was not being fought this evening I hope that Ministers will restore that high moral ground because there is a very Everest of morality waiting to be scaled and claimed. Heaven knows, the Minister needs all the help he can get. We would he delighted if he would seize the opportunity and accept this sensible and socially acceptable new clause which would do his reputation—which has been much tarnished during the passage of the Bill—an enormous amount of good and restore his high standing in some respects.

If the Government refuse to accept the spirit of the new clause, they will plunge from the heights of morality that the Prime Minister claimed for her party the other day—[Interruption.] I have a bachelor of divinity beside me, so perhaps I should leave it to my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) to expand on these matters. He can do that better than most hon. Members because he at least has a theological training, which is sadly lacking among most hon. Members this evening.

I have moved the new clause in the full expectation that it will be supported by all those who value high morality and believe in looking after the poor people who by sheer chance find something of considerable value perhaps worth several thousand pounds-lying in an old attic which appears utterly useless, but which is very valuable to collectors of such items.

11.15 pm
Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson (Newbury)

I want to ask the Minister a number of questions arising from the introduction of an amnesty. The Home Secretary referred to that possibility when we originally debated the White Paper. I have not heard any subsequent statement from a Minister about when such an amnesty might be introduced.

What are the Government's proposals for an amnesty? Do they intend that it should run for a comparatively short time or for up to three months, as in 1968? Does the Minister consider an amnesty as an attempt to persuade those who may simply have such weapons in their households to look out such weapons and take them to a police station or an arms dealer, or does he see it as a pardon for a wrongdoer?

The hon. Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross) has already said that many weapons are held by people without firearms certificates, but in their imagination those weapons will not be held illegally. They will simply suppose that the weapon, which may have been left to them by a member of their family, is one of their possessions. The fact that they have no intention of using it means that it is nothing more than a souvenir of the last war or some other event in their family's past. I do riot believe that one can describe such people as criminals or as being illegally in possession of such weapons, although I accept that strictly, within the law, that is the case.

I am sure that the Minister will agree that the purpose and benefit of an amnesty is to get as many weapons as possible which are held without firearms certificates out of the possession of individuals and into the possession of either the police or firearms dealers.

Am I right to suggest that, if someone is in possession of a firearm and takes it to a registered arms dealer, that dealer is able to buy it even though the owner does not have a certificate? Does the fact that that owner does not have a firearms certificate deny that person the right to sell it on the open market?

Mr. William Ross

If the hon. Gentleman considers the last part of my clause, he will see that a temporary firearms certificate would be provided in suitable cases.

Mr. McNair-Wilson

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and I endorse his remarks.

As the hon. Gentleman has said, we are aware that many weapons made before the last war have a considerable market value. Obviously they represent a capital sum to many who may not have considerable financial resources. It would be wrong for such people simply to hand in those weapons to the police and to be given nothing more than a receipt, given the fact that one of the armourers involved in the last amnesty told me that the Home Office sold such weapons to the gun trade. That sale took from people who were not aware that they were breaking the law and denied them a cash benefit that could have been available to them had we allowed firearms dealers to participate in the last amnesty.

If we want the amnesty to winkle out as many weapons as possible and if we want it to encourage people to hand in those weapons for which they do not hold certificates, we must make it attractive for them to get rid of them. In those circumstances, I believe that the new clause has much to commend it.

Mr. Douglas Hogg

A number of points have been raised, one of which I hope will be answered by the document to which I have just received. I shall deal with the questions put by my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson).

The object of the amnesty is to reduce the pool of illegally held weapons. I announced the amnesty in a written answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Sir E. Griffiths), when I said: My right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for the Home Department and for Scotland propose that an amnesty be held for one month from 1 September this year. Planning is nearing completion; further details will be announced".—[Official Report, 17 May 1988; Vol. 133 c. 376.] The pardon will be for unlawful possession. That is the offence to which the amnesty will apply. If, however, the weapon has been used in substantive offence, prosecution could be commenced.

The police will offer the weapons to the armed services, the forensic services or the museums. Subject to that, they will be destroyed. The answer to my hon. Friend's question about a person who has a gun and wishes to sell it is that a dealer can buy a firearm regardless of whether the seller has a firearms certificate. Of course, the seller would be committing an offence by having a firearm without a firearms certificate, and the amnesty will simply exonerate him from the consequences of unlawful possession, but he must hand the gun to the police, who will destroy it if they do not wish to offer it to the museums, the armed services or the forensic services.

Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson

If that is the case, surely it should be made known as widely as possible. Surely all those who have weapons and would be obliged to hand them in to the police during the amnesty and receive no compensation, could, between now and September, take those weapons to a firearms dealer and gain some financial benefit from the sale. Is the firearms dealer bound to report to the police that he has bought a weapon from someone who does not have a firearms certificate, or is that not a requirement?

Mr. Hogg

We are going into great detail. I shall try to answer my hon. Friend, but I do not guarantee that my answers will be completely right.

If a person finds a gun in his attic for which he should possess a certificate and does not, during the amnesty he can surrender the gun to the police without any consequences in respect of the offence of unlawful possession. If, however, before the amnesty has commenced, he goes to a dealer and seeks to sell it, although the dealer lawfully can buy the gun, the person seeking to sell it will be committing an offence of unlawful possession of a gun if he does not hold a certificate for a section 1 gun, for example. The amnesty to be held during the month commencing 1 September does not apply now, and does not apply to a transaction between the owner and the dealer, so the answer to that question is no.

The register that a dealer has to keep would contain a record of the transaction, and no doubt it would be possible for the police, if they were so minded, to discover that the seller did not possess a section 1 certificate. My hon. Friend might consider that to be a trifle remote, but that is a fairly accurate account of the law.

The hon. Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross) invited me to depart from the high moral ground which I am glad he recognises I occupy. I find it a bit rum that I should be asked to depart from the high moral ground which I occupy with such elegance to assist people who are in unlawful possession of firearms. That seems a bizarre proposition, but that is what the hon. Gentleman argued, although it is not what his new clause proposes. Even more rumly, his new clause deals with an amnesty in respect of guns which are lawfully held and which can be sold to any old dealer at any time without the owner committing an offence. The hon. Gentleman will have to reconcile that little problem of the difference between his speech and the new clause.

As I am on my high moral ground, I am glad to see my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) in the Chamber. I hope that he will forgive me, but there was one thing that I should have said about the consultative committee. We have to pay its members expenses. We have all forgotten that. We shall have to introduce a small amendment in another place to take account of expenses, which may result in a money resolution.

Sir Hector Monro

My hon. Friend may have suddenly woken up to the matter of expenses, but we are still waiting to know what the legislation will cost in police time, which must be millions of pounds more than the cost of the consultative committee.

Mr. Hogg

I was giving way. I was also trying to occupy the high moral ground. It seemed to me to be important that I should tell the House that the expenses of the members of the consultative committee will have to be met. We propose to make provision for that in another place and it may involve a money resolution. I wish that I had told the House that earlier. I am thoroughly ashamed of myself for not doing so, and I apologise and take this opportunity to tell the House what has to be done.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 50, Noes 178.

Division No. 330] [11.25 pm
Alton, David Michael, Alun
Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE) Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)
Battle, John Michie, Mrs Ray (Arg'l & Bute)
Bermingham, Gerald Molyneaux, Rt Hon James
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon) Monro, Sir Hector
Buckley, George J. Morgan, Rhodri
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE) Murphy, Paul
Cook, Frank (Stockton N) Pike, Peter L.
Corbett, Robin Powell, Ray (Ogmore)
Cryer, Bob Ross, William (Londonderry E)
Cunliffe, Lawrence Salmond, Alex
Dalyell, Tam Skinner, Dennis
Dewar, Donald Spearing, Nigel
Dixon, Don Steel, Rt Hon David
Ewing, Mrs Margaret (Moray) Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Galbraith, Sam Turner, Dennis
Golding, Mrs Llin Walker, Bill (Tside North)
Haynes, Frank Wallace, James
Henderson, Doug Walley, Joan
Howarth, George (Knowsley N) Welsh, Andrew (Angus E)
Howells, Geraint Wiggin, Jerry
Jones, Ieuan (Ynys Môn) Wigley, Dafydd
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S W) Worthington, Tony
Kennedy, Charles
Livsey, Richard Tellers for the Ayes:
McCusker, Harold Rev, Martin Smyth and Mr. Roy Beggs.
McKay, Allen (Barnsley West)
Alexander, Richard Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)
Alison, Rt Hon Michael Coombs, Anthony (Wyre F'rest)
Allason, Rupert Cope, John
Amess, David Cran, James
Amos, Alan Currie, Mrs Edwina
Arbuthnot, James Davies, Q. (Stamf'd & Spald'g)
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham) Day, Stephen
Arnold, Tom (Hazel Grove) Devlin, Tim
Ashby, David Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James
Atkinson, David Dover, Den
Baker, Rt Hon K. (Mole Valley) Dunn, Bob
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N) Durant, Tony
Baldry, Tony Evans, David (Welwyn Hatf'd)
Batiste, Spencer Evennett, David
Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke) Fallon, Michael
Benyon, W. Farr, Sir John
Bevan, David Gilroy Favell, Tony
Biffen, Rt Hon John Fenner, Dame Peggy
Blackburn, Dr John G. Field, Barry (Isle of Wight)
Boscawen, Hon Robert Forman, Nigel
Boswell, Tim Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)
Bottomley, Mrs Virginia Forth, Eric
Brazier, Julian Fowler, Rt Hon Norman
Bright, Graham Fox, Sir Marcus
Brittan, Rt Hon Leon Franks, Cecil
Bruce, Ian (Dorset South) Freeman, Roger
Buchanan-Smith, Rt Hon Alick French, Douglas
Buck, Sir Antony Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles
Burt, Alistair Gorst, John
Butler, Chris Greenway, John (Ryedale)
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln) Gregory, Conal
Carrington, Matthew Ground, Patrick
Carttiss, Michael Hamilton, Hon Archie (Epsom)
Cash, William Hampson, Dr Keith
Chalker, Rt Hon Mrs Lynda Hanley, Jeremy
Hargreaves, Ken (Hyndburn) Neubert, Michael
Harris, David Nicholls, Patrick
Hawkins, Christopher Nicholson, David (Taunton)
Hayward, Robert Oppenheim, Phillip
Heathcoat-Amory, David Page, Richard
Heddle, John Paice, James
Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael Patten, John (Oxford W)
Hicks, Mrs Maureen (Wolv' NE) Pattie, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey
Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm) Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth
Howarth, G. (Cannock & B'wd) Porter, David (Waveney)
Hughes, Robert G. (Harrow W) Portillo, Michael
Hunt, David (Wirral W) Powell, William (Corby)
Hurd, Rt Hon Douglas Raison, Rt Hon Timothy
Irvine, Michael Renton, Tim
Jack, Michael Rhodes James, Robert
Jessel, Toby Riddick, Graham
Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N) Roberts, Wyn (Conwy)
Jones, Robert B (Herts W) Rowe, Andrew
Jopling, Rt Hon Michael Ryder, Richard
King, Roger (B'ham N'thfield) Shaw, David (Dover)
Kirkhope, Timothy Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey)
Knapman, Roger Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')
Knight, Dame Jill (Edgbaston) Shelton, William (Streatham)
Knowles, Michael Shephard, Mrs G. (Norfolk SW)
Knox, David Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)
Lang, Ian Skeet, Sir Trevor
Lawrence, Ivan Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
Lee, John (Pendle) Speed, Keith
Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark Stern, Michael
Lester, Jim (Broxtowe) Stevens, Lewis
Lightbown, David Stewart, Andy (Sherwood)
Lilley, Peter Stradling Thomas, Sir John
Lloyd, Sir Ian (Havant) Summerson, Hugo
Lloyd, Peter (Fareham) Tebbit, Rt Hon Norman
Lord, Michael Thompson, D. (Calder Valley)
Luce, Rt Hon Richard Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Macfarlane, Sir Neil Townend, John (Bridlington)
MacGregor, Rt Hon John Townsend, Cyril D. (B'heath)
Maclean, David Tracey, Richard
Madel, David Tredinnick, David
Malins, Humfrey Trotter, Neville
Mans, Keith Twinn, Dr Ian
Marshall, John (Hendon S) Walden, George
Martin, David (Portsmouth S) Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)
Maude, Hon Francis Warren, Kenneth
Mawhinney, Dr Brian Watts, John
Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin Wells, Bowen
Mayhew, Rt Hon Sir Patrick Wheeler, John
Meyer, Sir Anthony Widdecombe, Ann
Miller, Hal Wilkinson, John
Mills, Iain Wilshire, David
Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling) Wood, Timothy
Montgomery, Sir Fergus
Morris, M (N'hampton S) Tellers for the Noes:
Moss, Malcolm Mr. Stephen Dorrell and Mr. Alan Howarth.
Moynihan, Hon Colin

Question accordingly negatived.

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